Every 26 seconds a woman in South Africa (SA) is stripped of her dignity and becomes a contributing statistic (2) to one of the greatest instances of sexual violence in the world.(3) In this post-apartheid country where historic deprivation and economic blight prevail, socio-political challenges disproportionately affect poor, non-white women.(4) Men exert their authority through rape, with most acts undocumented, underreported, and left without legal recourse.(5) Despite making provisions for vulnerable women, the SA Government fails to recognise the subset of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community that is continually challenged by corrective rape, a novel form of gender-based violence. Corrective rape exists to ‘cure’ lesbians of their nonconforming sexual orientation and is motivated by the traditional belief that homosexuality is a colonial import.(6)
Beyond the traumatising consequences of experiencing selective and discriminatory rape, the act violates inherent rights guaranteed by the reformed South African Constitution and poses a major public health concern. With escalating HIV infection rates, the act of corrective rape must be penalised to ensure the safety of SA’s female citizens. This paper aims to deconstruct the forces that shape corrective rape in SA, and the changes necessary to end it.
South Africa’s reputation for rape
A recent study (7) reports that 28% of men admit being perpetrators of rape, largely committing the act during their teenage years.(8) Though men are also victims of rape, non-white women are reported as being the most vulnerable.(9) It is estimated that a non-white woman is 4.7 times more likely than a white woman to be raped in a SA township.(10) Many theorise that SA’s alarmingly high incidence of rape exists as a response to the apartheid era use of brute force to maintain order. During apartheid, state-sanctioned violence was considered acceptable when crushing anti-apartheid forces. This method, selectively used against women in detention centres, motivates the current use of rape to establish control.(11)
In the past, the police functioned to protect the white community from crime, which inevitably coloured their judgment when it came to provinces that were not under white jurisdiction. Lack of protection and organisation within black townships fuelled generations of poverty and lawlessness.(12) Though anti-discrimination is codified in the 1996 Constitution,(13) dogmatic apartheid beliefs and practices render women subject to male sexual oppression, leaving them unable to rely upon police support for protection. A study of Xhosa youth found that males secure control of females through coercion and violence, confirming the longstanding history of rape in non-white communities.(14)
Male motivations for rape, however, appear to be misunderstood. In a study looking at the rape demographics of KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape Provinces, males aged 20 to 40 were found most likely to rape women. Factors such as lack of education and parental absence were significantly correlated with committing acts of rape. Those experiencing trauma, bullying and harassment were more compelled to abuse women, own guns, and involve themselves in gangs and theft. These factors predispose rapists to engaging in high-risk sexual behaviours, transactional sex and drug use. This milieu of factors leaves women as clear targets for displacing male angst.(15)
Post-apartheid politics induce violence against women of colour in SA and limit their ability to freely exercise their rights. One commentator estimates that “for every 25 men accused of rape in the country, 24 walk away free.”(16) Similarly, it is believed that there are 140 reported rapes each day, with actual numbers climbing to many hundreds.(17) Two out of five women report their first sexual experience as involving rape. Perpetrators of rape are unlikely to be held accountable for their actions, allowing numbers of such cases to rise. A low arrest and conviction rate for rape sustains the trend and provides evidence for the estimation that nearly 1 in 20 men commit the crime annually.(18) Women in SA have little power in attempting to guarantee their own safety.(19) Tragically, the challenge of rape is particularly acute for the neglected lesbian community.
Implications for the ‘L’ in LGBT
As the first country to openly accept members of the LGBT community, SA yields impressive advancements in the protection of human rights. Roughly 31 other sub-Saharan African countries outlaw homosexual sex, with four allowing capital punishment for such ‘crimes’.(20) In recent times, Governments have reinforced laws against homosexuality and political and religious leaders publicly dismiss homosexuality as immoral. Most individuals from sub-Saharan African countries who completed the Pew Global Attitudes Project openly reject homosexuality.(21) Unlike its sister countries, the SA Constitution dispels this attitude of disapproval and explicitly promotes recognition for the LGBT community. However, while the SA Constitution sanctifies same-sex marriage and legalises homosexuality,(22) SA fails to properly advocate against the corrective rape of its lesbian citizens. Strict gender roles create inequalities in sexual empowerment and entitlement.(23)
In addition to being accused of witchcraft and sorcery, lesbians in SA are assaulted for their sexual identity.(24) Families, churches and schools are described as being homophobic and transphobic, openly promoting the belief that being gay is ‘un-African’.(25) Some men believe that homosexuality is an issue that can be remedied and that lesbians have yet to be satisfied during heterosexual intercourse.(26) When a lesbian presents her preferred orientation to community leaders, she may be correctively raped by members of the same tribe or township. Instead of being punished for the act, the rapist is exalted and venerated. Lesbians victimised by rape endure social persecution and report feelings of self-hate following the incident.(27)
Episodes of rape may include the presence of other actors; in extreme cases, this can lead to the public stabbing and murdering of lesbians. For example, Eudy Simelane, a former member of SA’s Women’s National Football Team, was beaten, raped, and stabbed 25 times for her sexual identity. Simelane lost her life just outside of Johannesburg.(28) Since 1998, her fate has been shared by 31 other corrective rape victims, with a legal conviction of murder occurring only once.(29) Recognition of these murders as hate crimes regularly fails to occur, resulting in limited legal accountability for rapists’ actions.(30) As these crimes continue to widen the gender inequality gap, rape continues to facilitate a public health crisis through the heightened risk of HIV transmission.
Health considerations and crippling complications
A recent global Joint United Nations (UN) Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) report recognises the pervasiveness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic but fails to acknowledge the specific needs of lesbians.(31) African men experience a higher rate of HIV than men residing outside of the continent; this impacts the health of the lesbians subject to corrective rape.(32) It is estimated that HIV prevalence among men who rape women is 19.6%.(33) This high number, taken alongside the gap in gender equality, explains the disproportionate spike in HIV infections in women versus men. HIV/AIDS is most prevalent in females under the age of 40 and almost 80% of those infected with HIV/AIDS are women.(34) Through keeping multiple sexual partners and engaging in high-risk sexual behaviours, men increase the breadth of their infectivity. SA currently has the largest number of HIV/AIDS patients in the world, providing antiretroviral treatment provincially.(35) Inequities exacerbate the crisis, impacting at-risk lesbians when they are subject to corrective rape.
Beyond the challenge of HIV infection, delays in reporting rape result in lack of healthcare access, counselling services, and legal aid.(36) Because of the high HIV infection rate in SA, women are not provided post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or preventative treatment.(37) There are claims that some district surgeons improperly identify rape victims; when identified, they may also allow personal, negative judgements of the complaints brought by care recipients to affect their work.(38) The aftermath of rape creates psychological denial, depression, and suicidal ideation. Many women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and incur unwanted pregnancies, limiting their capacity to work and maintain their daily lifestyles.(39) These crippling effects of rape ultimately result in prolonged financial instability, and spur neglect from immediate family members.(40) Neglect also comes from the SA Government, which has yet to sign a UN referendum designating corrective rape specifically as a hate crime.
Corrective rape affects not only SA but also many other countries such as Thailand,(41) Zimbabwe,(42) Namibia,(43) and Ecuador.(44) In townships where there is urban decay, women are restricted to lives rife with male dominance and oppression. In these circumstances a majority of men, despite being educated, disagree with a lesbian’s preferred sexual orientation on the basis that it violates cultural and religious norms. Unlike many other countries that lack the legal framework to protect lesbians, SA is in a unique position to correct corrective rape. However, its lack of routine punishment for rape has had deadly consequences, including increases in HIV incidence. Such atrocities strengthen historic gender gaps and leave lesbians at increased vulnerability to attack. In order for SA to remedy these challenges, it must define corrective rape as a ‘hate crime’ and proceed to criminalise those violating the tenets of freedom that SA so valiantly fought for.
(1) Contact Ishan Asokan through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Rights in Focus Unit (
(2) ‘South Africa: Country specific information’, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, http://travel.state.gov.
(3) Itano, N., ‘South Africa begins getting tough on rape’, Womens News, 24 February 2003, http://womensenews.org.
(4) Di Silvio, L., 2011. Correcting corrective rape: Carmichele and developing South Africa’s affirmative obligations to prevent violence against women. Georgetown Law Journal, 99(5), pp. 1469-1515.
(5) Geen, J., ‘Rise of ‘corrective rapes’ on lesbians in South Africa’, Pink News, 13 March 2009, http://www.news.pinknews.co.uk.
(6) Nel, J.A. and Judge, M., 2008. Exploring homophobic victimisation in Gauteng, South Africa: Issues, impacts and responses. Acta Criminologica, 21(3), pp. 19-36.
(7) Bradshaw, D., Bourne, D. and Nannan, N., ‘What are the leading causes of death among South African children?’, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Medical Research Council (MRC) Policy Brief No. 3, 2008, http://www.unicef.org.
(8) Abrahams, N., et al., 2004. Sexual violence against intimate partners in Cape Town: Prevalence and risk factors reported by men. World Health Organisation, 82, pp. 330–337.
(9) Jewkes, R., et al., 2006. Rape perpetration by young, rural South African men: Prevalence, patterns and risk factors. Social Science Medicine, 63, pp. 2949–61.
(10) Anderson, M.J., 2000. Rape in South Africa. Georgetown Journal of Gender and Law, 1, pp. 789.
(12) Harsch, E., 2001. South Africa tackles social inequities. Africa Recovery, 14(4), pp. 12-19.
(13) Cockrell, A., 1997. The South African Bill of Rights and the duck/rabbit. Modern Law Review, 60(4), pp. 513–537.
(14) Pettifor, A., et al., 2004. Sexual power and HIV risk, South Africa. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 10(11), pp. 1196-2004.
(15) Jewkes, R., et al., ‘Understanding men’s health and use of violence: Interface of rape and HIV in South Africa’, Medical Research Council Policy Brief, June 2009, http://www.mrc.ac.za.
(16) Sizwe, L., ‘South Africa: Take action to stop corrective rape’, Change.org Petition, 14 March 2012, http://www.change.org.
(17) Hunter-Gault, C., ‘The Third Man’, The New Yorker, 5 July 2010, http://www.newyorker.com.
(20) Ottosson, D., ’State-sponsored homophobia: A world survey of laws prohibiting same sex activity between consenting adults’, International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, 2007, http://ilga.org.
(21) ‘Pew global attitudes project world publics welcome global trade—but not immigration’, Pew Research Centre, 2007, http://www.pewglobal.org.
(22) Jolly, J., ‘Africa’s lesbians demand change’, BBC News, 27 February 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(23) Jewkes, R., et al., 2011. Gender inequitable masculinity and sexual entitlement in rape perpetration South Africa: Findings of a cross-sectional study. Plos, 6(12), pp. 1-11.
(24) Smith, D., ‘South African lesbians live in fear, report finds’, The Guardian, 5 December 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(25) Hawthorne, S., 2005. Ancient hatred and its contemporary manifestation: The torture of lesbians. Journal of Hate Studies, 4(1), pp. 33-58.
(28) Kelly, A., ‘Raped and killed for being a lesbian: South Africa ignores ‘corrective’ attacks’, The Guardian, 12 March 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(29) Mieses, A., ‘Gender inequality and corrective rape of women who have sex with women’, Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) Treatment Issues, December 2009, http://www.scribd.com.
(30) Kinama, E., ‘South Africa: Classifying ‘corrective rape’ as a hate crime in South Africa’, Institute for Security Studies, 25 May 2011, http://www.polity.org.za.
(31) ‘UNAIDS action framework: Universal access for men who have sex with men, and transgender people’, UNAIDS/United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2009, http://data.unaids.org.
(34) ‘Sub-Saharan Africa: AIDS epidemic update regional summary’, UNAIDS, 2008, http://www.unaidsrstesa.org.
(35) ‘Nearly 50% of people who are eligible for antiretroviral therapy now have access to lifesaving treatment’, UNAIDS Press Release, 21 November 2011, http://www.unaids.org.
(36) ‘Country Summary: South Africa’, Human Rights Watch, 2010, http://www.hrw.org.
(37) Smith, D.K., et al., 2005. Antiretroviral post-exposure prophylaxis after sexual, injection-drug use, or other nonoccupational exposure to HIV in the United States: Recommendations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) Recommendations and Reports, 54(RR-2), pp. 1–20.
(38) ‘Human Rights Watch World Report’, Human Rights Watch, 1999, http://www.hrw.org.
(39) Kaminer, D., et al., 2008. Risk for post-traumatic stress disorder associated with different forms of interpersonal violence in South Africa. Social Science and Medicine, 67, pp. 1589-1595.
(41) ‘Sexual orientation and gender identity’, Amnesty International, 2012, http://www.amnesty.org.
(42) Bolcer, J., ‘Daily news’, 9 April 2010, http://www.advocate.com.
(43) ‘Namibia: Dance piece focuses on ‘corrective rape’’, New Era, 17 August 2012, http://www.newera.com.
(44) Caselli, I., ‘Corrective rape,’ torture among methods used to ‘cure’ homosexuality in Ecuador’, Alaska Despatch, 10 February 2012, http://www.alaskadispatch.com.